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North Korea hydrogen bomb test: South Korea punishes Kim Jong-un with K-pop

Seoul: With Kim Jong-un turning up the heat with North Korea's fourth nuclear test, South Korea responded on Friday by pumping up the volume. Literally.

A South Korean soldier adjusts equipment used for the propaganda broadcasts at a studio near the border between South ...
A South Korean soldier adjusts equipment used for the propaganda broadcasts at a studio near the border between South Korea and North Korea in Yeoncheon, South Korea, on Friday. Photo: Newsis/AP

At noon on the North Korean leader's birthday, South Korea fired up loudspeakers along the heavily fortified border and resumed the propaganda blasts that brought the reclusive regime to a war footing in August – and then to the negotiating table. South Korea has reinforced defensive positions near the loudspeakers in case of attack, while the North Korean army has stepped up surveillance along the border, the South Korean Defence Ministry said.

The broadcasts challenge the leader's monopoly on information. Speakers were set up at about 10 sites to play messages critical of North Korea's political system along with songs by girl group Apink and folk singer Lee Ae Ran.

South Korean K-pop girl group Apink performs in Gyeongju, South Korea in October. South Korea's border broadcasts ...
South Korean K-pop girl group Apink performs in Gyeongju, South Korea in October. South Korea's border broadcasts include songs by the popular group. Photo: AP

While years of United Nations sanctions and other penalties have failed to bring Mr Kim to heel, one thing that can get under his skin is broadcasts of South Korean ballads and rap music, a genre known as K-pop, over the demilitarised zone (DMZ). The speakers have been used only once in the past decade, for part of August in retaliation for the maiming of two South Korean soldiers by DMZ mines.

That spat escalated into what North Korea called a "semi-state of war" that was cooled by marathon talks at a border village where North Korean officials agreed to halt the mobilisation of forces. One condition was that Seoul turned the speakers off.

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"Kim Jong-un isn't your typical dictator. He's a god in North Korea, and propaganda broadcasts raise questions among North Koreans about that," said Park Chang Kwon, a senior research fellow at the state-run Korea Institute for Defence Analyses in Seoul.

"Broadcasts from South Korea can reach deep and far into North Korea's society, imbuing the minds of its people with the images of a free nation and hurting the oppressive personality cult."

A South Korean soldier stands by the loudspeakers near the border area between South Korea and North Korea in Yeoncheon, ...
A South Korean soldier stands by the loudspeakers near the border area between South Korea and North Korea in Yeoncheon, South Korea, on Friday. Photo: Newsis/AP

The broadcasts are a low-tech response to Mr Kim's sabre-rattling, compared with options like the tightening of sanctions on the isolated regime, South Korea developing its own missile defence system or potentially a beefing up of the US military presence south of the border. US legislators are seeking tougher sanctions on North Korea while US Secretary of State John Kerry has urged China to support a sterner approach to the Kim regime.

August pact

South Korean soldiers ride on a truck in Yeoncheon, south of the demilitarised zone that divides the two Koreas on Friday.
South Korean soldiers ride on a truck in Yeoncheon, south of the demilitarised zone that divides the two Koreas on Friday. Photo: AP

In Parliament on Thursday, Defence Minister Han Min Koo said North Korea's detonation of what it claims to be a hydrogen bomb constitutes an "abnormal situation". His words carried significance as the late August pact that ended the stand-off could be annulled under such circumstances, allowing the loudspeakers to be turned back on.

The August bursts ranged from K-pop and recordings of casual conversations to discussions about the importance of human rights and the lives of South Korea's middle class

A barbed-wire fence at the Imjingak, near the demilitarised zone separating South and North Korea.
A barbed-wire fence at the Imjingak, near the demilitarised zone separating South and North Korea. Photo: Getty Images

In October 2014, North Korea shot at balloons carrying anti-Pyongyang leaflets, and it has threatened artillery attacks against activists flying such materials over the border.

The loudspeaker move could yet backfire, given the level to which the propaganda irritates the regime.

"The resumption of loudspeaker broadcasts may emotionally provoke the North Korean military sensitive to criticism of the 'supreme dignity', rather than help resolve the nuclear issue," Cheong Seong Chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute near Seoul, said.

Given the broadcasts coincided with Mr Kim's birthday – he is believed to be in his early thirties – "North Korea may react in an ultra-strong way to this decision by South Korea, viewing it as an act of ruining a national party".

Bloomberg

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